SF Book Review, Part 9: Mistressworks Edition
So last year, someone noticed that the SF Masterworks, a series of books highlighting the classic science fiction novels, was somewhat lacking in female author representation. I'm not a big fan of identity politics and I don't want to take this post in that direction, but one of the good things that came out of the whole meme was a site highlighting people's favorite SF books by female authors called SF Mistressworks. I'm always on the lookout for interesting SF, so I picked a few books from their list and added a few of my own, and so here are the last five female-authored books I've read:
A Matter of Oaths, by Helen S. Wright - In the distant future, humans have spread out into space, establishing two major empires and a Guild of Webbers that run the spaceships and thus control travel and trade between the two empires. Rafe is a talented Webber (basically someone who can interface with the computers who run spaceships) who is suffering from amnesia... but this isn't just a cliche, it's actually an indication that Rafe is an "oath-breaker", basically someone who has betreayed his respective empire and had their memory wiped as punishment. But, as it turns out, Rafe is more important than anyone realizes, and the two empires fight to retain him. His new crew gets caught in the middle of the fight. Wright has crafted a surprisingly dense universe here and populated it with traditional SF competent men and women that are generally a likable bunch. The worldbuilding is done mostly in the background - you pick things up as you go, rather than wading through long chapters of exposition. Sure, there are some info-dumps, but you have to put a lot of things together for yourself as well, and Wright strikes a good balance. The story itself isn't really exceptional, but it's a well executed space opera and well worth reading (unless you're a homophobe, in which case you'll be freaked out by some of the relationships in the book). The ending does feature a deus ex machina, but it fits well enough with the story, and Wright manages to wring enough suspense out of the finale. It's not really in print anymore, but you can pick up a used copy on Amazon for a penny (alas, no kindle version either). As far as I can tell, this was Wright's only fiction novel, which is a shame, as I'd certainly be interested in more from her...
Polar City Blues, by Katharine Kerr - Basically a traditional murder/mystery thriller story with a science fictional setting. Some of this setting doesn't really work for me. Kerr's characters all speak in a weirdly constructed version of English (for instance, a character will say something like "I no get it" instead of "I don't get it") that only really serves to be distracting without providing any real depth or flavor to the story. Fortunately, Kerr has crafted a complex, twisty little mystery for us, so I can give the linguistic stuff a pass. Polar City Police Chief Al Bates has a nasty problem brewing, with a psyionic killer on the loose and a trail of dead bodies in his wake. He teams up with connected smuggler Bobbie Lacey to investigate and quickly becomes enmeshed in a complicated tale of assassination, mysterious alien artifacts, and a new, unknown disease spreading throughout the city. Solidly constructed mystery with some added flavor from the science fictional elements and some neat role reversal in the book's romantic subplot. It took a bit to get going for me, but I ended up enjoying this enough to recommend it. Unfortunately, this is another book that's currently out of print, but again, Amazon has lots of cheap used copies. Kerr is probably more known for her Fantasy works, but this was an interesting effort.
Foreigner, by C. J. Cherryh - My least favorite book in this post, I found this one a bit of a slog. It starts off promisingly enough. Twice, even. But the two thrilling prologues prove to be a tease. After those exciting false starts, the story proper almost immediately bogs down. Lots of repetitive whining and miscommunication for the sake of plot (which isn't very complicated, but it's played that way due to the fact that everyone only says cryptic things). A user on Goodreads hit the nail on the head with his "brief fantasia that illustrates" Cherryh's style in this book:
Bren was extremely worried about the assassination attempt and was quite annoyed that his freedom of movement had been compromised. A worrisome Bren couldn't believe he had to suffer an escort everywhere! "I really am awfully worried that I can't phone home", said Bren, as he huffily realized that his ability to buy canned meat alone was no longer possible. "This really bothers me, I can't even leave my apartment without an escort!" notes Bren, as he paces his apartment in frustration. It was driving him crazy with annoyance and worry that not only had an assassin tried to kill him, now he couldn't travel alone anymore. He could not leave his apartment alone. After all, an assassin had just attempted to murder him. An actual assassin! Trying to murder him! It was all so worrisome. And as if the assassination attempt wasn't enough, now he couldn't even leave his apartment unaccompanied. "This is really very annoying and I feel awfully compromised, so much so that I am genuinely worried," reflected Bren.
Which is all well and good, but the book goes on like this for a solid 200-300 pages of nothing but Bren's whining incompetence. Things pick up towards the end of the novel, and Cherryh can craft some exciting sequences when she wants to, but she seems more interested in detailing the confusion of alien communication or politics. Which, again, would be fine, except that it's astoundingly repetitive and boring. And I'm a guy that's normally fascinated by this sort of thing, but Cherryh seems determined to stamp out anything interesting in the premise. Perhaps if any of her characters were likable or interesting in any way? Maybe if they didn't spend all their time petulantly whining about their lot in life? Which is all rather weird, since Cherryh certainly has a way with words. Unfortunately, she doesn't seem to have directed them towards any real purpose. A most frustrating novel. This is apparently the first in a long series of popular novels, and from what I gather, they're better than this book, which does set up the setting which is actually rather well thought out. Unfortunately, Cherryh explores this by way of long sequences of exposition and info-dumps that don't ever really seem relevant and are always interspersed with whining. I guess I just hate books where people whine a lot. It's fine to whine for a while - Lois Bujold's Miles Vorkosigan frequently gets depressed or whiny - but you can't make that the entire focus of the book. Miles always parlays his whining into action and usually success, which makes for a good story arc. The characters in Cherryh's book just whine and whine, interesting things happen to them, then the story ends. Most disappointing.
The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins - I got a Kindle for Christmas and wanted to read something, and this book was free to download, so I figured I'd check out what all the fuss is about. I have to admit that the premise held little interest for me. Not only is it quite derivative (see Battle Royale, The Running Man, and a few other stories with similar premises), but it's also set in something of a dystopia, which never excites me (and for the record, that's my least favorite part of the other stories of this nature as well). Indeed, the worldbuilding here is distinctly lackluster. The whole purpose of "The Hunger Games" themselves makes no real sense to me, nor does the structure of the setting. On the other hand, the plot is reasonably well executed and rockets along at a fast pace. Once you get into the actual battle, the setting ceases to matter all that much, and you get a thrilling tale of survival and cat-and-mouse stalking. The action is well staged and executed, and I found myself reading at a rather fast pace. There's a sorta romantic subplot, though it's never really clear if it was just a ploy or not (I predict Katniss will develop a nasty case of trust issues in the sequels). It's ultimately a fun book, though I didn't find much depth here. I was kinda "meh" about this book in the end, and while I don't really have any desire to read the sequels, I'll probably watch the movies. I will say that I read it in 3 sittings, so it's certainly not a difficult book to get through, I just had a lot of nagging questions that bothered me about the book.
Mirror Dance, by Lois McMaster Bujold - Of course, there has to be some Bujold on the list, and this one is the ninth book in the long running Vorkosigan Saga. This installment is notable in that it's the longest of the books I've read yet (clocking in at a solid 560 pages) and it's told mostly from the perspective of a character other than Miles Vorkosigan. I won't say who, as it's a bit of a spoiler for the series as a whole, but this new character starts off the book as a pretty unlikeable guy. He's even whiny. And he screws lots of things up towards the beginning of the book. But his heart's in the right place, and unlike the characters in Foreigner, our protagonist here actually has an arc in this book, eventually even redeeming himself (reading Mirror Dance and Foreigner back-to-back really puts the latter's issues in specific relief). I have to admit that I was surprised by a number of plot twists throughout the novel, and while the absence of Miles was a bit grating at first, I quickly became intrigued by the story as it progressed. Bujold seems to do this in a lot of her books. I often find myself thinking This can't be right!? The story shouldn't be going this way!, only to be consumed by what follows. I don't know how she does it, but Bujold sure can craft a wonderful story. As the series progresses, she's managed to make excellent use of her universe and supporting cast, which is large and diverse. You're always happy to see certain characters pop up, and after 8 books, Bujold has a lot of background to draw from. The story of this book has to do with a botched rescue of clones, though things quickly escalate (into spoiler territory). It's a great book, maybe in the top tier of the series, though I'd worry about reading this without the background from the previous books. At the very least, you'd have to read Brothers in Arms before this one (a lot of the books in this series have a sorta companion book, making it a series of pairs - a subject for another post, perhaps). I've already read the next few books in the series and with only two or so books left, I'm dreading the hole it will leave in my reading schedule...
And there you have it. I'll probably need to do some non-SF book reviews coming up, but the SF always returns. I may end up finishing off the Vorkosigan Saga in the near future anyway...
Posted by Mark on January 29, 2012 at 06:25 PM .:
It's apparently real. I really thought I was watching a parody thing here. Even when I started recognizing the actors, I thought it was, like, one of them Funny or Die videos where they trick famous people into doing a short skit or something. But it's a full feature. A feature where a beloved U.S. president rides around on a machine-gun-equipped wheelchair fighting Nazi werewolves (literal werewolves, not those other werwolves). Oh and for those looking forward to Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, it appears that Kevin Sorbo has been tapped to play Lincoln in this film (and according to the writer, "in this movie Lincoln is the king of all badass presidents, but he's a stoner. Other Presidents in office can make him come alive out of his White House painting and ask him for advice if they smoke weed with him.") I also love Ray Wise's interaction with Einstein. Inspired lunacy.
Posted by Mark on January 25, 2012 at 07:22 PM .:
Sunday, January 22, 2012
2011 Kaedrin Movie Awards: The Arbitrary Awards
So we're finished with the formal awards, but there are always some other awards that don't really require a lot of nominees... and there are some movies that have something so uncommon that it's worth bringing up. Some of these awards have actually become a yearly thing, though most are still just random and, well, arbitrary. In any case, here they are:
The "You know what happens when a toad gets struck by lightning? The same thing that happens to everything else" Award for Worst Dialogue:Battle Los Angeles. This one gets harder and harder to pick every year because who wants to go back and revisit horrible movies looking for bad dialogue? In this case, I just went from the memory of cringing at the dialogue when I saw the movie. "Maybe I can help. I'm a veterinarian." How convenient. Cowboys & Aliens merits attention here as well.
The Proximity to Jason Vorhees Award for Heroic Stupidity:Don't Be Afraid of the Dark. So a little girl moves into a haunted house, and her father gets her the creepiest nightlight thing ever, then people start getting into not-so-mysterious accidents and blah blah blah, this film makes no fucking sense. Everyone in the film is a moron.
Most Surprisingly Mediocre Movie of the Year:Limitless and The Lincoln Lawyer (tie). For some reason, I was expecting both of these to be nigh unwatchable, but they were both decent movies. Not fine cinema or anything, and probably won't be making their way onto my top 10 or honorable mentions, but a good way to spend a couple hours.
Best Long Take/Tracking Shot:Hanna. So Eric Bana gets off a train, and the camera follows him as he walks through the station. As he walks, you start to notice people following him; eventually he's surrounded by enemies and has to fight them off, which he does. And this all happens in a single tracking shot. It's a bit of a bombastic, showy sequence, but I loved it anyway.
The Park Chan-Wook Award for Excessive Vengeance:I Saw the Devil. Those wacky Koreans really seem to enjoy their revenge movies.
Best CGI Animal Not Named Caesar: Maurice the CGI orangutan from Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Maurice might be my favorite character in the movie, actually. Heck, he was smart before he took the drug - he was a circus orangutan and learned signing, and he's somehow the voice of wisdom or something in the movie. He doesn't get the emotional arc that Caesar does, but he's still awesome.
The About Face Award:The Greatest Movie Ever Sold. I have to admit, it took guts for a guy like Morgan Spurlock, who went out of his way to destroy a brand with an earlier movie (with arguably unfair tactics) to make this movie, a movie about product placement financed completely by its sponsors and product placement in the movie. It's a clever idea and he did manage to pull it off despite his reputation.
Best Old People Fight Sequence:The Debt. Haha. Old people fighting.
Best Opening Sequence:: Drive. The opening chase sequence was fantastic, tense, and exciting stuff. It tells you everything you need to know about the driver, and it's a chase that's more about subterfuge and hiding than pyrotechnics and speed (i.e. it's not a Fast and Furious movie...) Also worth calling out for opening sequences: Scream 4, a pitch perfect opening for the post-modern, self-referential nature of the series. Unfortunately, neither Drive nor Scream 4 quite lived up to the promise of their opening sequence, though I think Drive managed to pull off that switch (i.e. it wasn't a great action movie with lots of chase scenes, but it was still a good movie).
Best Closing Shot:Another Earth. The movie has its flaws and I really wasn't with this movie until about the last half hour, when things started to turn around. And then there's the last shot, which is just ambiguous and surprising enough to be satisfying without spelling anything out.
The John Carpenter Memorial Award:Attack the Block. This is a nebulous concept, but this movie really does feel like the sort of thing a circa-1985 Carpenter would have made... and it's a ton of fun too.
And that just about wraps up the awards for the year. Look for a top 10 list in a few weeks...
Posted by Mark on January 22, 2012 at 07:32 PM .:
Wednesday, January 18, 2012
I was going to write the annual arbitrary movie awards tonight, but since the web has apparently gone on strike, I figured I'd spend a little time talking about that instead. Many sites, including the likes of Wikipedia and Reddit, have instituted a complete blackout as part of a protest against two ill-conceived pieces of censorship legislation currently being considered by the U.S. Congress (these laws are called the Stop Online Piracy Act and Protect Intellectual Property Act, henceforth to be referred to as SOPA and PIPA). I can't even begin to pretend that blacking out my humble little site would accomplish anything, but since a lot of my personal and professional livelihood depends on the internet, I suppose I can't ignore this either.
For the uninitiated, if the bills known as SOPA and PIPA become law, many websites could be taken offline involuntarily, without warning, and without due process of law, based on little more than an alleged copyright owner's unproven and uncontested allegations of infringement1. The reason Wikipedia is blacked out today is that they depend solely on user-contributed content, which means they would be a ripe target for overzealous copyright holders. Sites like Google haven't blacked themselves out, but have staged a bit of a protest as well, because under the provisions of the bill, even just linking to a site that infringes upon copyright is grounds for action (and thus search engines have a vested interest in defeating these bills). You could argue that these bills are well intentioned, and from what I can tell, their original purpose seemed to be more about foreign websites and DNS, but the road to hell is paved with good intentions and as written, these bills are completely absurd.
Looks like the DNS provisions in SOPA are getting pulled, and the House is delaying action on the bill until February, so it’s gratifying to see that the activism had an effect. However, that activism would have been put to better use to educate people about why DRM is harmful, why piracy should be fought not with law but with smarter pro-consumer marketing by content owners (lowered prices, more options for digital distribution, removal of DRM, fair use, and ubiquitous time-shifting). Look at the ridiculous limitations on Hulu Plus - even if you’re a paid subscriber, some shows won’t air episodes until the week after, old episodes are not always available, some episodes can only be watched on the computer and are restricted from mobile devices. These are utterly arbitrary limitations on watching content that just drive people into the pirates’ arms.
I may disagree with some of the other things in Aziz's post, but the above paragraph is important, and for some reason, people aren't talking about this aspect of the story. Sure, some folks are disputing the numbers, but few are pointing out the things that IP owners could be doing instead of legislation. For my money, the most important thing that IP owners have forgotten is convenience. Aziz points out Hulu, which is one of the worst services I've ever seen in terms of being convenient or even just intuitive to customers. I understand that piracy is frustrating for content owners and artists, but this is not the way to fight piracy. It might be disheartening to acknowledge that piracy will always exist, but it probably will, so we're going to have to figure out a way to deal with it. The one thing we've seen work is convenience. Despite the fact that iTunes had DRM, it was loose enough and convenient enough that it became a massive success (it now doesn't have DRM, which is even better). People want to spend money on this stuff, but more often than not, content owners are making it harder on the paying customer than on the pirate. SOPA/PIPA is just the latest example of this sort of thing.
Intellectual Property and Copyright is a big subject, and I have to be honest in that I don't have all the answers. But the way it works right now just doesn't seem right. A copyrighted work released just before I was born (i.e. Star Wars) probably won't enter the public domain until after I'm dead (I'm generally an optimistic guy, so I won't complain if I do make it to 2072, but still). Both protection and expiration are important parts of the way copyright works in the U.S. It's a balancing act, to be sure, but I think the pendulum has swung too far in one direction. Maybe it's time we swing it back. Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to participate in a different kind of blackout to protest SOPA.
Posted by Mark on January 18, 2012 at 06:20 PM .:
Sunday, January 15, 2012
2011 Kaedrin Movie Award Winners!
The nominations for the 2011 Kaedrin Movie Awards were announced last week. Today, I'll be announcing the winners of those awards. Later in the week, I'll cover less traditional categories in what we like to call the Arbitrary Awards, and at some point in the near future, I'll post my top 10 of 2011 (this will most likely happen in early to mid-February). So let's do this thing:
Best Villain/Badass: The Plague (Rip & Grinder), played by Nick Bateman and Peter Simas in Hobo with a Shotgun. They might not be the main villains of the piece and they're only in the film for a short time, but they stole the show. The Plague are basically a duo of over-armored demonic bounty hunter assassins. Or something like that. At one point in the film, you see their lair, and they have a bunch of old, crossed-off bounties on the wall. Among their victims: Jesus Christ, Joan of Arc, and the Easter Bunny. The Plague was best thing about Hobo With a Shotgun and certainly the best badass villain of the year.
Competition wasn't weak either. Mickey Rourke was pretty great in Immortals. Michael Fassbender was fantastic as a young Magneto in X-Men: First Class, though he sorta straddles the line between villain and hero in this particular installment. The film wasn't all that good and the character wasn't written that well, but Christoph Waltz seemed to be having a lot of fun in The Green Hornet (though again, not much of a villain). And so on, but no one can compare to The Plague. My understanding is that there will be a Plague spin-off movie, which is something I would normally find uninteresting, but for whatever reason, I do want to see that movie!
Best Hero/Badass: Hanna, played by Saoirse Ronan in Hanna. And so a young female character takes this award two years in a row. I loved the movie, a sorta art-house action flick, and young Hanna was pretty damn badass throughout (and her dad, played by Eric Bana, is no slouch either.) Competition was high for this award. Rutger Hauer's hobo from Hobo with a Shotgun was most assuredly a runner-up, as he's totally badass and pretty damn funny (I love the "bear" monologue in the film). Immortals had lots of heroic badassery, but it was spread out between lots of characters. I ended up picking Poseidon as the nominee because his trident made him instantly recognizable, and he was totally kicking ass against the titans at the end. I think Sucker Punch, while not without its flaws, was unfairly maligned this year, which is why I nominated it for a bunch of awards, including this one.
Best Comedic Performance: Ellen Page in SUPER. If comic book nerds weren't already in love with Ellen Page, then they are now. Her performance was the highlight of SUPER. She's just so quirky and enthusiastic. A little demented too, but Page makes it work and because of her liveliness, she takes the award. None of her fellow nominees had to rise to that sort of challenge, but there's still some good ones on the list. In a lot of ways, Midnight in Paris suffers from typical Woody Allen tropes, but the scenes in the past with the historical figures were wonderful - I picked Corey Stoll because his performance as Hemmingway was one of the more memorable things about the movie. I love the hell out of Tucker and Dale vs Evil, and Tyler Labine led that charge. I liked Bridesmaids a lot, but it just wasn't that funny. I have a soft spot for Harold and Kumar and I was nice to see them again, but it all still pales in comparison to the original. The Muppets was a delight and Cedar Rapids was a lot of fun (and come to think of it, perhaps I should have nominated John C. Reilly for that one), but neither could really compare with Ellen Page in this category...
Breakthrough Performance: Elle Fanning in Super 8. A mildly disappointing movie that was elevated significantly by Fanning's performance. Her "acting" scenes in the film were probably the most memorable thing about the film and instantly had me penciling her in for this award... and no one could unseat her! Runner up would be Michael Parks's intense performance as a cult leader in Red State. Chris Hemsworth is one charismatic guy, and he managed to single-handedly make Thor kinda interesting (despite the fact that the film kinda stunk). Alison Pil was great, but I probably should have nominated her for Scott Pilgrim vs. the World last year as that was the more memorable breakthrough performance (she was great in Midnight in Paris too). Rooney Mara did an excellent job in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, a film that otherwise fell a little flat for me.
Most Visually Stunning:The Tree of Life. Say what you will about how pretentious it is or how personal it is or how much you like/hate it, you have to admit that it's a gorgeous film. I kinda hated a lot of things about this movie, but I was so mesmerized by the visuals that I watched the whole thing without complaint. Lots of competition for the award this year, but nothing even really comes close, which says a lot when you've got a category with Tarsem Singh and David Fincher movies. Sucker Punch gets another nod here too, because it was also a very pretty movie to look at. Meek's Cutoff, Melancholia, and Drive were a little slow, but immaculately composed and shot. Rubber was too, but it connected with me a lot better... but I'm getting ahead of myself. We'll talk more about this movie in just a moment...
Best Sci-Fi or Horror Film:Rubber. What a wonderfully absurd and weird movie. It's a little slow moving, but visually interesting enough to keep momentum, and it has a lot to say about movies and audiences. Plus, it's about a tire named Robert who can use his telepathic powers to make people's head explode. Not sure it's really "scary", but it was among the most interesting films of the year for me (genre film or not), so it wasn't hard to pick this one as a winner.
Attack the Block would probably take the silver here, as it was just a big ball of fun and there were some thematic confluences with real world events that helped make this movie more interesting than it even intended... Source Code doesn't entirely work, but I enjoyed it quite a bit anyway and it's hard to knock Duncan Jones for producing original SF material (I had a similar conflicted feeling about his previous effort, Moon). I enjoyed both Insidious and Paranormal Activity 3, but both owe a little too much to the original Paranormal Activity to warrant serious consideration. Rise of the Planet of the Apes certainly had its moments, but there were lots of things that didn't really work for me in that movie... Also worthy of note, a last-minute addition to the nominees (as I just watched it yesterday): Another Earth was a very interesting SF movie that seems like it's just using SF as a background, but eventually makes much more of the premise...
Best Sequel/Reboot:The Muppets. Always a difficult category to pick, but as already mentioned, The Muppets was a delightful little film and a ton of fun. Is that nostalgia talking? Maybe, though I never watched the Muppets that much as a kid, and I probably haven't even seen all their previous movies, so I wouldn't say I was overwhelmed by subjective feelings here. It's certainly not a perfect film, but how can you not like The Muppets when they're at the top of their game? Old favorites (Rainbow Connection) and new numbers (Am I a Man or a Muppet) both connected well for me, and I generally hate musical numbers. Again, not perfect, but still fun. I've already talked about a few of the other nominees, but I should call out Scream 4, which I think had one of the best opening sequences of the year, and Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol, wherein an animation director made a pretty great action flick. Also, I nominated Elite Squad II: The Enemy Within because I really enjoyed it, but I never saw the first one, so I should probably catch up with that...
Biggest Disappointment:Cowboys & Aliens. And it's probably the worst movie on the list too. It's not like I was expecting fine cinema here, but this movie utterly failed to deliver anything of note. Awful script, mediocre performances, and rather poor visual design as well. Don't Be Afraid of the Dark was also quite disappointing, though they did manage to evoke some sense of atmosphere in that movie (still not worth watching). The Squad was a movie that had some buzz going into Fantastic Fest (apparently Tim League loved it), but it was a terrible, terrible movie (for reasons I've already belabored). The remaining nominees were all actually decent movies that just didn't manage to live up to high expectations.
Best Action Sequences:13 Assassins and Immortals. I couldn't decide. This category was the most difficult of the year, as most of the nominees could easily take home the award. 13 Assassins gets the nod for its climactic battle, a well constructed 45 minute action sequence that has a lot of heft. Immortals is just gorgeous to look at, and some of the action sequences are very well composed. One thing that I'm very happy to see is that most action films this year tended towards clear, steady photography (as opposed to shaky-cam/quick cut), and that went over very well in a movie like Immortals (which also used slow motion to great effect). Rise of the Planet of the Apes really only had one great action sequence (on the Golden Gate Bridge), and Drive, well, didn't have enough driving in it (aside from the first sequence of the film, which was superb - and I like the rest of the film a lot too, just not necessarily as an action movie). The Yellow Sea is notable mainly for its hatchet fights (yeah, you read that right - one of the characters in particular favors the hatchet as his weapon of choice, and it's pretty badass). Hanna had a fantastic single tracking shot action sequence that was pretty astounding too (this one was also pretty close for the win). Really, this has been a great year for unconventional action movies - all of the nominees are worth watching.
Best Plot Twist/Surprise:Tabloid. I bet you didn't see this one coming. Especially since I didn't nominate the winner. In looking at the nominees, nothing was really jumping out at me, so I went back through all the movies I saw, and I realized that Tabloid fit pretty well. It's a documentary, so there's no real "plot" twists, but the movie consistently surprised me in the direction it went. Just when I thought the story couldn't get crazier, it did. And then it got even more crazy. None of the other nominees feature what would traditionally be called a huge plot twist, which is perhaps my problem. However, they all have surprises in them, and I actually quite enjoyed all of them. I do want to call out Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, which has taken a lot of flak because it doesn't feature a typical spy thriller twist at the end. But I found the movie quite surprising at times, and while the ultimate "mole" was kinda irrelevant, there were enough other things going on that I thought it was a worthwhile venture...
Best High Concept Film:Rubber. I mean, come on, how much more high concept can you get? A sentient tire becomes self-animated and gains telepathic powers which it uses to go on a killing spree in the desert, all orchestrated by a weird police officer who has also commissioned an audience to watch the whole thing. Sheer insanity, and one of my favorites of the year. Other nominees are pretty good too. I love the premise of Tucker and Dale vs Evil and The Greatest Movie Ever Sold, both of which are really clever. A Boy and His Samurai has a really tired high concept premise, but executes it so well that it doesn't really matter. Hobo with a Shotgun would have been a potential winner if it wasn't for the fact that it's not the first movie to be made that's based on a fake movie trailer. But ultimately it has to be Rubber. It was always Rubber.
2011's 2010 Movie of the Year:Red Hill. This is an Australian movie with no real stars (closest thing to it is Ryan Kwanten, who plays Jason on True Blood) and a pretty simple plot: A young police officer on his first day in a small town has to deal with a murderer who escaped prison and is seeking revenge. As it turns out, though, it's a very well executed thriller. And it features someone that would have made a great nominee for best villain/badass last year (a pretty thin year for villainy). Anyways, this was a pretty lackluster category this year - I guess I saw most of the important stuff last year!
Well there you have it. Stay tuned for the Arbitrary Awards on Wednesday and, eventually, the top 10 of 2011.
Posted by Mark on January 15, 2012 at 08:46 PM .:
Wednesday, January 11, 2012
The Book Queue, 2012 Edition
The last list I posted, back in July 2011, had 15 books on it. I've made some excellent process, clearing out almost all of the "Holdovers" from previous lists, including some books that have been sitting on my shelf for literally years. The one remainder from that list is Godel, Escher, Bach, which I chose not to read due to its length (not sure if I'll tackle it this year either, but it will remain in the queue until I do!) I've actually read several books that weren't even in the queue, but I think it's time to regroup and look ahead to what I'll be reading in 2012. The first few books here are holdovers from the previous list, which I didn't read for various reasons.
Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid by Douglas R. Hofstadter: Again, not sure I want to tackle this one right away, as it's quite the lengthy tome. And it's not super easy reading either - it's dense, complex stuff. I've actually read the first chapter or so before, and I'm virtually certain I'll enjoy the book a great deal, but I've got a ton of other stuff I'd like to get through first.
The Children of the Sky by Vernor Vinge: I still want to read this (a continuation of Vinge's loosely linked Zones of Thought books), but initial reviews of this book seem to indicate that it ends on a cliffhanger and that another novel is forthcoming. I thus won't be reading this until I know more about when the presumed conclusion to the story will be available...
The Quantum Thief by Hannu Rajaniemi: I actually ordered this last year, but for some strange reason, Amazon could not fulfill the order (it had something to do with my ordering of the paperback version, which is apparently nonstandard or something). I do still want to read it though (it's appaently a SF heist story, which seems right up my alley), and now that I have a Kindle, I can probably get to this whenever I want...
Savage Season by Joe R. Lansdale: The first in a series of crime novels by Lansdale, whom you may know from his work on Bubba Ho-Tep (a book/movie where a black JFK and an old Elvis fight a mummy in a modern-day Texas retirement home). I just never got to this last year, but I don't see myself delaying anytime soon.
Theodore Rex by Edmund Morris - I gave this biography of Theodore Roosevelt to my uncle as a gift a while ago, and he though I'd like it too, so now it's in the queue. The biography apparently begins with Roosevelt's taking office (i.e. no getting bogged down with his childhood and upraising, it just goes straight to the action). It is a long book with small type and everything, but it's probably something I'll get through this year.
Foreigner by C. J. Cherryh - I've actually started reading this one already, so you can see that this book queue works in mysterious ways and that I certainly won't be reading this stuff in order. In any case, this is apparently the first in another long-running series about humans first encounter with aliens. So far, it's quite good, though I'm a little discombobulated by how the narrative keeps jumping ahead. From what I can tell, the series gets much better as it goes...
So there's 11 books I want to read this year. My goal is to do just as good as the 30 I read last year, if not improve on that a little. I also got a Kindle for Christmas, which means I could maybe do more reading on the go. Or not. We'll see. I'm going to be keeping track of progress on GoodReads, so feel free to follow along or friend me or whatever.
Posted by Mark on January 11, 2012 at 06:26 PM .:
Sunday, January 08, 2012
2011 Kaedrin Movie Awards
Welcome to the 6th Annual Kaedrin Movie Awards! As of right now, I've seen 65 movies that would be considered 2011 releases. Add in the 19 movies I saw at Fantastic Fest, and that brings the grand total up to 84 movies, a record for me. This post thus commences my end of the year recap, only about one week late! [Previous Installments here: 2006 | 2007 | 2008 | 2009 | 2010] I'll post the nominations now, and like last year, I'll post all the winners next weekend.
2011 has been a strange year of movies. Nowhere near the lows caused by (or maybe blamed on) writers strike (or the first half of 2010 for that matter), but I don't know that it ever really soared either. Looking through the movies I've seen this year, there are lots of standouts, but nothing that really hit me full on. It's not a year of mediocrity, really. There were a ton of good, above average movies this year... but few that approached perfection (usually there's at least one or two for me). I'm not even really close to compiling my top 10, but I have a feeling that every selection on that list will end up featuring some sort of caveat or flaw that I'm not entirely comfortable with (again, there are usually at least a few movies that are definites). There are still a few movies I want to see before I finish my top 10, but one interesting side effect of my feelings on film this year is that they're really perfect for the movie awards. One of the points of these awards is that they allow me to give some love to films that I like, but which aren't necessarily great or are otherwise flawed (and thus the categories may seem a bit eclectic). Some of these movies will end up on my top 10, but the grand majority of them will not.
The rules for this are the same as last year: Nominated movies must have been released in 2011 (in the US) and I have to have seen the movie (and while I have seen a lot of movies, I don't pretend to have seen a comprehensive selection - don't let that stop you from suggesting something though). Also, I suppose I should mention the requisite disclaimer that these sorts of lists are inherently subjective and personal. But that's all part of the fun, right? So here are the nominees for this year's awards:
A decent year for villainy (not great, but respectable), though I should note that there were a few characters in here who are only borderline villains (for example, Erik Lehnsherr / Magneto isn't really the villain of the piece, but he sorta is and he certainly becomes one later in the chronology, but he's not, but he is a villain?) As with previous years, my picks in this category are for individuals, not groups (i.e. no vampires or zombies as a group).
It's a rare year. Usually, a year is filled with good villainy or good heroism, but not both. This year has ample supplies of both, though perhaps a slightly better slate of heroes. Again limited to individuals and not groups.
As with previous years, my main criteria for this category was if I watched a movie, then immediately looking up the actor/actress on IMDB to see what else they've done (or where they came from). This sometimes happens for even well established actors/actresses, and there's at least one of those this year...
Best Sci-Fi or Horror Film
I'm a total genre hound, despite genres generally receiving very little attention from critics. This is a category normally dominated by Horror, and this year probably still favors that, but a decent showing from SF this year (including some hybrid SF/Horror movies)
Typically a difficult category to populate, but we had some decent stuff this year. I also changed the category a bit to include reboots, as there are at least a couple every year that are worth checking out...
Always a difficult award to figure out, as there are different ways in which a movie can disappoint. Usually, expectations play just as big a part of this as the actual quality of the film, and it's possible that a good movie can win the award because of high expectations.
Best Plot Twist/Surprise
Well, I suppose even listing nominees here constitutes something of a spoiler, but it's a risk we'll have to take, right? A decent year for plot twists, though I don't see a clear winner either... this is going to be a hard category to pick!
Best High Concept Film
This is always a strange category to populate because the concept is a bit nebulous, but nevertheless, there are always a few interesting choices... and we've got a pretty big slate of nominees this year...
2011's 2010 Movie of the Year
A movie originally released in 2010 that I didn't catch up with until 2011. This is a problem all amateur movie lovers have to confront. Towards the end of the year, 500 movies come out, but they only play in New York or LA for a grand total of like 3 hours (enough for 2 showings at each theater!) Plus, there's always a movie I dismissed and neglected to see which I end up seeing a year later and loving. This ended up being a lackluster category this year - I guess I'd already seen most of the great stuff from last year...
Anyone have any suggestions (for either category or nominations)? Comments, complaints and suggestions are welcome, as always.
Both Drive and Rise of the Planet of the Apes take in the most nominations, with 4 a piece. I'm a little surprised about Apes - I mean, I liked the movie, but it's not something that's even close to top 10 territory for me (but perhaps it will end up in the honorable mentions). Trailing closely with 3 nominations were a whole slew of films: Hobo With a Shotgun, I Saw the Devil, Immortals, Midnight in Paris (another surprise for me), Rubber, Source Code, Sucker Punch, and Tucker and Dale vs Evil. A whole slew of other films got only 2 or 1 nomination, with a grand total of 42 different films nominated (I haven't calculated this number for all previous years, but it's a lot more than last year's 34 nominated films... also note, this doesn't include the 6 "disappointing" films, nor does it include the 4 movies from 2010). Again, I think this speaks to the sort of weird above-average but not quite stellar year we've had.
So I'm going to let these nominations stew for a week, then announce the winners next Sunday, followed by the traditional Arbitrary Awards and eventually culminating in my top 10 of 2011 list (which may be a few weeks)...
Posted by Mark on January 08, 2012 at 06:54 PM .:
Wednesday, January 04, 2012
As I spend some time compiling nominations for the 6th Annual Kaedrin Movie Awards (a thorough and comprehensive process that takes weeks!), my chain-smoking monkey research squad has run into some other fun things you might be interested in...
Facial Hair and Presidential elections - The other day at lunch, I wondered aloud why so few presidential candidates have beards or facial hair of any kind. As with all discussions of marginalia, we naturally turned to the internet and found this stunningly detailed account of facial hair and elections. Author Nicholas Whyte is also pretty free-flowing with the snark, making it quite the humorous read:
Only five US presidents have sported full beards, and another four had moustaches of varying degrees of glory. These were all during the half century run of the dozen Presidents between Lincoln and Taft, of whom only Andrew Johnson and McKinley were clean-shaven.
Probably owing to Lincoln, the "Republicans have historically been the hairier party." And Democrats... well:
The Democrats have never had a properly bearded candidate. Their losing candidates in 1864, 1868 and 1872 had really stupid beards - one a wee tuft combined with a luxurious moustache, the other two with grotesquely extended sideburns meeting below. The only successful Democrat who even went as far as a moustache was Grover Cleveland, who won the popular vote three times running in 1884, 1888 and 1892. (Cleveland lost the electoral college in 1888 to Benjamin Harrison, so far the last American President with a proper beard.) The hairiest Democrat was Winfield Scott Hancock, whose huge moustache did not help him in the 1880 election, and Democrats with moustaches lost in 1864 and 1904.
Really excellent work here, with everything you could ever possibly want to know about facial hair and presidential candidates. I love the internet.
The Internet Explorer 6 Countdown - Well, yes, I work for a retail website so you bet your arse I can't wait for people to get off this horrid browser, but that's not why I'm linking to this site. The reason this is hysterically funny is that the site is actually run by Microsoft. (hat tip to Dave)
My Top Ten Top Ten Top Ten list - Yes, it's a top ten list consisting entirely of links to other top ten lists... of top ten lists. Have I mentioned that I love the internet?
The Best Things We Read All Year - Yeah, there are a lot of good things to read in here. I hope you have some time, because you're going to be reading these for a while.
The 20 Unhappiest People You Meet In The Comments Sections Of Year-End Lists - Speaking of lists, here's a fairly comprehensive list of the types of annoying comments you're likely to get. If you're popular. None of my lists ever seem to generate comments from the likes of:
11. The Person Who Thinks You Were So Close. "I like all these picks, but you ranked The Descendants as your #4 and Martha Marcy May Marlene as your #5, and they should be the other way around. FAIL."
I'm not quite Harry The Hipster-Hater, Who Really, Really Hates Hipsters (as I'd never leave a comment like that), but I'm pretty close, because fuck those hipsters.
How Pixar screwed up cartoon cars for a generation of kids - Boy, critics really had a great time ridiculing Cars 2 this year, and many have pointed out the absurdities of anthropomorphizing cars (to the point where it's becoming a bit boring to do so), but I can't believe this is the first time anyone's pointed out this particular incongruity:
The eyes of anthropomorphized cars are the headlights, not the windshield.
And there's no exceptions here. Having a cartoon car with the eyes in the windshield is wrong, just wrong. And that includes you, too, Pixar.
And that's all for now. If my crack squad of chain smoking monkey researchers stays on track, you may see the nominations for the 2011 Kaedrin Movie Awards on Sunday. But who knows. Brilliant researchers sometimes work in strange ways.
Posted by Mark on January 04, 2012 at 07:35 PM .:
Sunday, January 01, 2012
My Most Anticipated Movies of 2012
Before I get started on recapping the 2011 movie landscape (yes, I know most folks are already done with their year end recaps, but here at Kaedrin, we work at a more leisurely pace), I thought I'd look ahead at 2012. My impression of 2011 is an odd one. I really enjoyed many movies I saw, but there were few that really blew me away. It's not quite a year of mediocrity, but it isn't a spectacular year either. 2012, though, is shaping up to be at least very interesting and possibly one of the best years in a long time...
The Obvious Blockbusters:
Most folks already know these movies are coming and they're also something of a known quantity, so I'm separating them out. There are, of course, other big blockbusters coming, but these are the ones I'm most interested in:
The Dark Knight Rises - I'm obliged to include this one. I'm a huge fan of The Dark Knight, but I have to admit that I have trouble believing this new installment will even come close to its predecessor. I actually don't know much about Bane as a villain and I think Tom Hardy's a fantastic actor, but I can't imagine he'll compare favorably to Heath Ledger's Joker. What's more, this film seems to be suffering from typical superhero-sequel-villainitis - there are apparently three villains here. On the other hand, if anyone can pull it off, it's Christopher Nolan and his typical band of collaborators. I'm excited for this movie, but I'm also a little wary and am trying to temper expectations (I'm also avoiding trailers/marketing as much as possible).
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey - Peter Jackson has reassembled the LotR crew. I don't really need to explain why this is so awesome, but interestingly enough, I think the Hobbit is probably a more mainstream story that will really hook audiences. On the other hand, they're splitting the book (which is pretty short and straightforward in comparison to the rest of LotR) into two movies, which seems like a naked money grab. Still, I can't wait for this one.
The Avengers - Another superhero tale, this time a superteam comprised of superheroes, each of which has had their own solo movie. The problem, of course, is that all of the solo movies have been profoundly mediocre (with the one possible exception being the first Iron Man). On the plus side: Joss Whedon is writing and directing, which is the one factor that distinguishes this movie from its ilk and really makes me want to see it. But to be honest, I want this movie to be good more because I'd like to see Whedon go on to make something original and interesting (the way Nolan was able to parlay his success with Batman to make movies like Inception).
Skyfall - Bond finally returns to the big screen. I can't say that I'm too excited about director Sam Mendes for this, but I loved the hell out of Casino Royale and the series has nowhere to go but up after the disastrous clusterfuck of Quantum of Solace.
The Less-Obvious Flicks:
It seems like 2012 is brewing up a lot of original screenplays with talented directors, which is a welcome development. And an exciting one too!
Django Unchained - Without a doubt my most anticipated movie of the year. Writer/Director Quentin Tarantino is taking on the Western, and he's assembled a fantastic cast to help him along. I'll be curious to see how the tragic loss of Tarantino's long-time editor Sally Menke (frequently cited as an important collaborator) will impact the production, but I'm confident Tarantino will be able to put together something great here...
Looper - Writer/Director Rian Johnson's take on the time-travel story is another of my hotly anticipated films of the year. I loved Johnson's Brick and The Brothers Bloom, so this one is a no brainer. Also of note: Apparently Shane Carruth (who wrote, directed, edited, and acted in the ultra-low-budget time-travel tale Primer) is pitching in, so now I'm expecting some really mind-blowing time travel stuff.
Wreck-It Ralph - It's been a long time since I've been excited for a new Disney Animation movie, but it appears the time has come. I don't know much about it, but it's apparently set in an arcade where video-game characters can hop from game to game. Typical villain Wreck-It Ralph gets sick of being a bad guy and attempts to channel his inner-hero. The whole intersection between video games and movies is interesting to me, so I'm expecting a lot out of this one... Also of note: Director Rich Moore cut his teeth working on The Simpsons and Futurama. Excitement level: Rising.
The Cabin in the Woods - A horror movie with a tired premise ("Five friends go to a remote cabin in the woods. Bad things happen."), but some interesting talent attached (it doesn't seem like it will be the teenager deathtrap that so many of these movies devolve into), including a script by Joss Whedon. Color me intrigued.
Seven Psychopaths - Writer/Director Martin McDonagh made a name for himself with In Bruges, and this latest film seems like it'll be right up my alley. Apparently the plot features a bunch of gansters and the titular psychopaths and follows the tale of a dog-kidnapping. Also, it stars Colin Farrell, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell, Christopher Walken, Abbie Cornish, Tom Waits, and Kevin Corrigan. Yes, please.
Argo - I'm not sure how it happened, but Ben Affleck really has quietly become one of the more interesting directors working in Hollywood these days, and this movie seems like another offbeat choice. Apparently it follows a CIA plan to mount a fake movie production in order to save Americans trapped during the Iranian revolution. Yeah. And Jack Kirby is apparently a character? Ok. I will see this.
The Secret World of Arrietty - It's not often that Anime films get a release in the US (and who knows how many screens this will end up on), but a new film from Japan's Studio Ghibli is always worth a shot (even if it's not directed by Hayao Miyazaki - though he has a writing credit here).
High Risk/Reward Films:
This is risk/reward from my own estimation of the potential enjoyment, not from any sort of budget or box office perspective. All of the above movies could be horrible, of course, but some of the below movies seem so strange that they seem like they could either be amazing or horrible. Still, even if they fail, I have a feeling these will at least be interesting failures. This list sorta mutated halfway through into movies that are perhaps less risky, but also have less potential, but I didn't really have anywhere else to put these movies and don't know what else to call this list (Honorable Mentions? Except that there are way more of these than any other list)...
Gravity - Director Alfonso Cuarón's one-woman show starring Sandra Bullock as the lone survivor of a space mission to fix the Hubble telescope sounds like it could be amazing. But I've never been a big fan of Sandra Bullock, and I've always found Cuarón's Children of Men to be overrated. That being said, rumors indicate that Cuarón will be relying heavily on long takes to tell this story, which could elevate a seemingly simple story into pure spectacle all by itself. Then again, it could also be a tremendously boring character piece with long shots of Sandra Bullock crying or something. Still, an original science fiction tale that might have some hard SF elements is something I am certainly excited for...
Cloud Atlas - Six interconnected tales that span centuries and genres, directed in parallel by two units lead by Tom Tykwer and the Wachowski Siblings. It's certainly ambitious and it will almost certainly be epic... but the question is whether it will be an epic clusterfuck or an epic wonder of cinema. Neither Tykwer or the Wachowskis have done anything all that interesting recently, so that's not very encouraging, but the sheer scope of this movie is interesting enough to make me want to see it...
Only God Forgives - Nicolas Winding Refn is always interesting, though he sometimes gets a little too carried away. This film reunites him with Drive's Ryan Gosling and has a pretty strange premise: "A Bangkok police lieutenant and a gangster settle their differences in a Thai-boxing match." Alright, I'm interested.
Cosmopolis - David Cronenberg adapting a Don Delillo novel about a young millionaire's odyssey through New York in order to get a haircut stars Robert Pattinson. This could be interesting or an utter disaster.
Bullet to the Head - Walter Hill's return to action films could be decent. It stars Sylvester Stallone, Jason Momoa and Christian Slater(!) and it follows a cop and a hitman joining forces to bring down a common enemy. Everyone involved in this has hit-or-miss careers, so I wouldn't get too excited, but there's potential here.
The Great Gatsby - The thought of an adaptation of this novel alone wouldn't be that big of a deal, but the movie is being directed by the bombastic Baz Luhrmann. In 3D. I'd like to pretend like I have a clue about how this will turn out, but I have a feeling that I'd never come close to what this will actually be.
Gambit - A script by Joel and Ethan Coen always intrigues, though director Michael Hoffman's filmography does little to inspire. Still, it sounds interesting: "An art curator enlists the services of a Texas steer roper to con a wealthy collector into buying a phony Monet painting." I kinda wish the Coens were directing, but I'll still give this one a shot...
Wanderlust - Mostly because director David Wain is pretty awesome. Also, Jennifer Aniston. The premise is lackluster (New York couple moves to a free love commune), but Wain is typically hilarious.
The Raven - Edgar Allen Poe hunts a serial killer. Interesting casting choice of John Cusack as Poe and a premise that could be great (even if it's pretty well trodden revisionist ground).
Moonrise Kingdom - Wes Anderson's next film certainly has a great cast - Bruce Willis, Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Tilda Swinton, Frances McDormand, Harvey Keitel, Bob Balaban - but I'm always wary of Anderson.
Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter - Yeah, this revisionist stuff was overplayed a few years ago, but this could be a lot of fun, right? Director Timur Bekmambetov can certainly bring some interesting visual flare to the proceedings, though I don't think I really like any of his previous films (but they are pretty!)...
G.I. Joe: Retaliation - I know, right? This doesn't sound like it would be any good, but I recently saw the preview and it actually looks like an exciting action film with some unexpected starpower in the form of Bruce Willis. I don't really expect much out of this, but it could be a bucket of fun...
Frankenweenie - Tim Burton? I haven't been a fan of most of his recent stuff, but this animated feature sounds like it could play to Burton's particular brand of whimsy.
Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance - The first movie was horrible and the preview for this isn't particularly inspiring, but co-directors Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor (known mostly for the Crank films) have a wicked sense of humor and a manic visual style that could make this movie more interesting than it deserves to be.
The Bourne Legacy - A Borne flick without Borne? It's certainly got a lot of talent attached and I'm a fan of Writer/Director Tony Gilroy (who wrote the previous installments, though his work on the third was apparently minimal due to the writer's strike), so there's a big potential upside here. But it could also fall completely flat without Damon...
There are some movies in the pipeline that may or may not be released in 2012. But when they do come out, I'd probably be interested in them:
The Master - I have no idea what it's about, but any movie from Paul Thomas Anderson will of course be hotly anticipated by any film geek. Unfortunately, it's unclear if it will be released this year. I will say, though, that I'm disappointed that Anderson never got to make his adaptation of Thomas Pynchon's awesome stoner/noir detective novel, Inherent Vice (hopefully he tackles that next).
Inside Llewyn Davis - It's the Coen Brothers next movie. Duh. The plot summary is less than inspiring, but the Coens always seem to make their movies worth watching.
For whatever reason, these films aren't inspiring as much interest in me as they seem to be in everyone else...
Prometheus - On the face of it, it sounds interesting. Ridley Scott directing a new original science fiction movie? Except that it's apparently something of an Alien prequel... and man, the concept of finding out the origins of the space jockey is just silly. Ridley Scott's recent output has been rather dull as well. I guess this could be good, and the preview doesn't look like the abomination that it sounds like on paper, but I'm still not really looking forward to this one...
The Amazing Spider-Man - An unnecessary remake/reboot that doesn't look like it will add anything new or interesting to the series. I suppose it could be ok, but I have a hard to believing that.
Lincoln - Don't get me wrong, the involvement of Spielberg and Daniel Day-Lewis is intriguing, but I just can't muster much interest in this biopic...
So there you have it. 26 movies I really want to see, 2 that might have to wait until 2013, and 3 that I'm not that excited for, but will probably see nonetheless... The funny thing? I probably missed quite a few interesting movies! Feel free to share anything I missed in the comments...
Posted by Mark on January 01, 2012 at 06:02 PM .: